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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Hvalio se žuti limun kraj mora (245)

It's been a long time since my last post! Sorry about that. But I'm back with one of my favorite posts so far. I'm interested to hear your thoughts and ideas!


Songs that are called “folk,” “traditional,” or “ethno” songs usually have their roots in the everyday life of common people, and they usually come from an earlier time (which is why the Serbo-Croatian term for them is izvorna pesmaizvor means source). But throughout their existence, these songs are changed and used to fit the needs of various actors, be they political powers, ethnomusicologists, or the contemporary music market. The way we learn or hear a song today may be significantly different from the way the song was sung at certain points in the past, despite the fact that we call it an izvorna or a traditional song. Those differences can tell us a lot.

This song (which has adorable lyrics, by the way) winds an interesting path with its various recordings, showing just how a “traditional” song can be interpreted and reinterpreted to fit the circumstances, the age, or notions of what a song should be.

Hvalio se žuti limun kraj mora, aman

Žuti limun kraj mora:

Danas nema ništa lipše od mene, aman

Ništa lipše od mene.

Jer divojke neće šerbet bez mene, aman

Neće šerbet bez mene.

Za to čula nekošena livada, aman

Nekošena livada:

Ne hvali se žut-limune kraj mora, aman

Žut-limune kraj mora;

Ja sam prvi lipi cvitak od lita,

Prvi cvitak od lita.


The yellow lemon by the sea boasted, aman

The yellow lemon by the sea:

“There is nothing more beautiful than me today, aman

Nothing more beautiful than me.

Because girls won't drink sherbet without me, aman

Won't drink sherbet without me.”

The unmowed meadow heard this, aman

Unmowed meadow:

“Don’t brag, yellow lemon by the sea, aman

Yellow lemon by the sea;

I'm the first beautiful flower of summer,

The first flower of summer.”


This song uses the ikavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian, which is spoken or was previously spoken on the Dalmatian coast and in parts of western, central and northern Bosnia. Because the song has been typically associated with Bosnia (see below), we might assume that this song originally was sung in a part of what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina where the ikavian dialect was/is spoken and which had/has meaningful contact with coastal communities, such that this song prominently features lemons and the sea (most likely the southern parts indicated as ikavian on the map linked above).

“Hvalio se žuti limun kraj mora” seems to be a popular, beloved song that has been reinterpreted many times, often in casual contexts. This song is considered a sevdalinka, found in a Czech book of songs from Bosnia and Herzegovina collected by Ludvík Kuba, published in 1927 (more on Kuba’s work will have to wait for another post). It has also been included in sevdalinka anthologies. However, many versions of the song sound nothing like the sevdalinka songs we have heard up to now, and on many other recordings it is labeled simply “izvorna.

Its spectrum seems to me different from some of the other songs we have looked at so far, both in terms of who is recording the song and putting it on YouTube and how drastically the versions of the songs differ. Let’s take a look at these interpretations, focusing on the reasons for the similarities and differences.

1. Sestre Ačkaruše

This is absolutely my favorite recording of this song. It starts with a fast-tempo, lively strings introduction (maybe with some light percussion), moving on to two women (Sestre Ačkaruše (Sisters Ačkaruše)) singing in a very specific vocal style, not following the meter of the strings section. Their voices are, for the most part, in unison or very close together. They take turns singing this amazing vibrato while the other holds either a steady note or gradually fades down to a lower pitch. The strings play simple notes underneath their singing, but when they finish a phrase, they burst back in, slower than in the introduction, picking up the energy for a few measures until the women come back in. I feel like I’m at a bonfire and there’s a lot of wild dancing going on around me.

2. Biseri izvora

Biseri izvora play the song, live from a field in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with small pipes (svirale) and a drum (bubanj) and the bubanj player sings the song along with the playing. This is completely different from the first version in terms of the instrumentation. While the tune bears some resemblance (long notes held at the end of the phrases, for example), it could almost be a completely different song from the one we heard Sestre Ačkaruše sing. This is in part owing to the fact that he sings alone, without a partner, and we don’t get the interesting instrumentation. What this version does share with the previous version is its energy, which is in part achieved by the intensity of the instruments, similar to the strings, and also of the vocal quality used by both the bubanj player and Sestre Ačkaruše – powerful, located in the chest, like they are shouting to the next mountain.

3. Home video by Anto Simić Čiko

This version, a home video uploaded by YouTube user Anto Simić Čiko, is sung completely a cappella. This is another one of my favorite versions because you can hear the singing and the different parts so well. As in the other versions, there are two singers. The tune, harmonic pattern, and vocal style is most similar to the Sestre. This video was only uploaded about 10 years ago, so it’s really fabulous to see that some people learned the song this way and are still singing it like that.

4. Braća Hodžić i Halčo

Braća Hodžić i Halčo’s (Brothers Hodžić i Halčo) version combines a little bit of both of the versions we have heard before, but also adds in some new elements. It follows the pattern of the Sestre Ačkaruše version, with an introduction, sung verses out of the song’s meter and with almost no instrumental accompaniment, and raucous interludes. Like the Sestre, the Braća also have two voices. Their harmonic pattern is clearly intended to be in the same style, although it is not sung the same. In particular, the Braća don’t sing the same ornaments the Sestre, which gives it a very different quality. The instruments used and some of the melodic motifs are really where things get different in this version. We add some new instruments, like the accordion, a saz-sounding instrument, some electric instruments (A bass? A guitar? It’s hard to tell), and maybe some others. But the melodies drawn on for the interludes sound a lot more like something you would hear in a kafana today – something like starogradske pesme (old town songs) – than the playful fiddling of the Sestre’s version. When the instruments break in at the end of the verses, they ramp up slowly, and the accordion features prominently. In result, the feeling is much different – like you’re in the kafana and everyone is singing along from their tables.

5. Braća Gavran

This interpretation by Braća Gavran, an izvorna music group, takes its inspiration from the Sestre Ačkaruše in its arrangement and intensity. We get the intense chest-based vocal style, romping string interludes, ornaments and fall-off at the end of the lines. It’s much cleaner and easier to hear, since it was likely recorded much more recently than the Sestre version, using, most likely, a recording studio and high-quality equipment. However, the tune is still quite similar to the Sestre’s version, in that the main melodic line is a little bit hard to pick out. The Braća are Bosnia- and Germany-based and perform other songs in a similar style.

6. Izvorna Grupa iz Bosanske Bijele

This version from Izvorna Grupa iz Bosanske Bijele (sung by Nenad Marković and Mika Živković) is the clearest, I think, in terms of all the elements we have discussed so far. I feel like this recording really gives you a real idea of what the song actually sounds like. The tune is somewhat different the other versions—more managed, sweeter, catchier. It is more audible in this version, in addition to the harmonic pattern and the ornaments the Sestre use. Unlike some of the earlier versions, the violin and saz play throughout with more or less the same energy, although the violin has its own melody during the interludes. As a result of this and the different, more gentle vocal quality used, it has a completely different energy than the other versions. A very similar recording is this one I really love – Nevenka, Gale Anto, and Mateo Pavić.

7. Mile Petrović

And this is where things really change. This is the version that first pops into YouTube when I type in the name of the song. Picking up some of the parts of the melody from the Izvorna Grupa iz Bosanske Bijele, it threads the lyrics into a sweet, lilting, and quite catchy tune that would be appropriate for the radio. We get quite different instrumentation in this slower version, such as a syncopated even rhythm created with a stringed instrument and accordion instrumentals in between the verses. He also uses a completely different type of vocal technique, one much more common in contemporary sevdah singing, that is more located in the hard palate and face. It produces a warm and clear sound, one well-suited for the vibrato and the ornaments (very different from the Sestre’s) on the held notes, and one that would have been pleasing for audiences across Yugoslavia. Mile Petrović was a popular sevdah singer in the 1960s from Radio Sarajevo.

The song was recorded more recently by Zanin Berbić (his arrangement). Berbic’s version really sounds like a lot of contemporary sevdah, with an accordion and contemporary orchestral instruments, a plucked baseline that alternates between high and low notes every two beats, and a sevdah vocal style. His version is clearly based on Mile Petrović’s version, and not Sestre Ačkaruše’s.

An early recording, likely made in the late 1920s, was done by a Rom singer named Paja Todorović and released by Edison Bell Electron (1927-1929). Unfortunately, this recording is not available online, but someone uploaded part of the B side of the record to YouTube, where you can hear “Kolika Je Javorina Planina” and part of “Oj Sike, Sike” to get a sense of what the recording might have sounded like. Again, completely different from all of the other versions.

In this post, I have not attempted to trace this song back to its origins. Not only is it very hard to do that, but it is also a bit of a useless activity in some respects. Music changes over time, geography, and platform for various reasons, and to assign one version a label like “original” or “authentic” is to miss the whole point of how music functions in society and culture. In fact, what is much more interesting is to see how songs change across these different dimensions and to try to think and learn about what might have led to these changes, and what these changes tell us about the values, priorities, or opportunities a society has.

We saw this song morph from a raucous bonfire song to a kafana song to a buttoned-up sevdalinka, and I would assume this is likely due to the changing function of music from something done by a community to something done in restaurants and bars to something recorded and broadcast over radio. One of the most interesting things about this song is that two stylistically distinct versions of a song with the same text have both survived into the present day and are still part of the living tradition of the song.

You can find a collection of all the songs from Velika Narodna Lira that are available on Spotify on my playlist.


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